The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

A few years ago, The Reader was one of those novels that everyone seemed to be reading. Boosted by a successful film adaptation and a selection as one of Oprah's book club reads, this short novel captured the attention of readers around the world. I purchased my copy, but like far too many of my other novels, The Reader languished on my shelf as a book I would "get to one of these days." This summer, as I was preparing to move, I stumbled across my copy and decided to finally give it a read.

The novel opens with Michael, age fifteen, traveling through the streets of Germany on his way home from school. He falls ill and is rescued by a mysterious woman, twice his age, who takes him to her flat. There, she nurses him to health and sends him home to his parents and siblings. For some reason, Michael can't stop thinking about the woman. He decides, under the guise of thanking her for helping him, he will wait by her flat. When the two meet and are properly introduced, her name is Hanna, they become an odd couple. They fall into a forbidden love affair that sees young Michael discover his own sexuality and forces him to deceive his family and friends. It is not immediately clear what Hanna stands to gain from the relationship, but she confidently guide the boy to fulfill whatever her needs may be.

But just as suddenly as the affair begins, so it ends. One day, out of the blue, Hanna disappears, leaving Michael to question his own actions and wonder if the feelings he had for Hanna were real, or simply a boyhood crush. Whatever the answer, the relationship casts a shadow on his life.

Years later, Michael, now a law student, comes into contact with Hanna again. After years of no contact, Hanna is on trial for horrendous war crimes. Haunted by this ghost from his past, Michael observes as the once strong woman cowers and refuses to defend herself. How could she willfully participate in the acts she is accused of? Michael struggles with the feelings he felt and still does for the woman he loved as he tries to come to terms with the man he has become.

This short novel manages to pack in many ideas and moral questions that surpass the simple explanation of a book review. Even my summary fails to paint a broad enough picture without revealing and spoiling too much of the plot. That being said, this is a bold novel that dares to hold a mirror to society, history, and the reader. Through this story of forbidden love and coming of age in the time of war, the reader is faced with questions of love, lust, and the amount of suffering we are brave enough to endure in order to maintain our pride. While I would not say this is an entertaining read, it does move quickly and stirs up moral conversations that make it well worth the read.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.


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